Black Cat Mansion (亡霊怪猫屋敷, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1958)

A doctor and his wife find themselves at the mercy of an ancestral curse in Nobuo Nakagawa’s eerie gothic horror, Black Cat Mansion (亡霊怪猫屋敷, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, AKA Mansion of the Ghost Cat). Most closely associated with the supernatural, Nakagawa’s entry into the ghost cat genre is among his most experimental outside of avant-garde horror Jigoku released two years later. Employing a three level flashback structure spanning the modern day, six years previously, and then all the way back to Edo, Nakagawa positions contemporary Japan as a kind of haunted house with skeletons in its closet which must finally be exposed and laid to rest if society is to recover from the sickness of the feudal legacy. 

Nakagawa opens, however, with an ethereal POV shot in blue-tinted monochrome of a doctor walking through a darkened hospital armed only with a torch while a pair of orderlies silently remove a corpse on a gurney right in front of him. A man of science, the doctor, Tetsuichiro (Toshio Hosokawa), confesses that he’s tormented by the sound of footsteps on this “evil night” which remind him of a strange series of events that took place six years previously while his wife Yoriko (Yuriko Ejima) was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. In an effort to aid her recovery the couple left Tokyo to return to her hometown in the more temperate Kyushu. Yoriko’s brother Kenichi (Hiroaki Kurahashi) expresses concern over his sister’s health, wondering if she wouldn’t be better to have an operation but Tetsuichiro explains that at this stage an operation might only make things worse so they’re hoping the quiet and fresh air will allow her lungs to recover more quickly. Kenichi has sorted out a place for them to live in an abandoned mansion but the house is extremely dilapidated and in fact barely habitable especially for someone suffering with a debilitating medical condition in which it might be sensible to avoid dusty environments. Nevertheless, the couple fix the place up and Tetsuichiro opens a surgery in the front room. 

For Yoriko, however, the house is full of foreboding. On their journey there, the driver had to swerve to avoid a black cat running out in the road, nearly careering off the side of mountain, while she is also alarmed to see a crow malevolently perching on a tree outside the mansion. Once inside, she glances into a storehouse by the entrance and thinks she sees a creepy old woman silently grinding corn. Tetsuichiro sees nothing when he checks it out, but is strangely unperturbed when Yoriko spots what seems to be a bloodstain on a bedroom wall insisting that they can paint over it while the footprints of someone walking barefoot through the dusty house are probably unrelated and belong to a homeless person who’s since moved on. For a man of science, Tetsuichiro is doing a lot of overlooking but seems to believe that his wife’s distress as she continues to complain of bad dreams featuring rabid cats and the creepy old woman is mere “hysteria” provoked by the mental stress and anxiety of living with a potentially fatal medical condition. 

Unfortunately for him, however, vengeful cat spirits don’t care if you believe in them or not, what sort of person you are, or even if you have any real connection to whatever it was that turned them into a vengeful cat spirit in the first place. A visit to a local Buddhist priest reveals, in a vibrant colour filled with kabuki-esque shadows on the shoji, the reasons everyone thought the house was haunted which stem back to the Edo era and an entitled samurai lord with anger management issues, Shogen (Takashi Wada). Shogen hires a local Go master, Kokingo (Ryuzaburo Nakamura), to teach him the game and is enraged by Kokingo’s lateness for the appointment which is attributed to the fact that his mother is blind but is actually more to do with his cat’s severe separation anxiety. 

Taking this as a personal slight to his position, Shogen attacks his loyal servant Saheiji (Rei Ishikawa) and is only prevented from killing him by his levelheaded son (Shin Shibata) who makes a point of asking his grandmother to keep an eye on his dad because he’s worried his famous temper will cause embarrassment to the family. He is right to worry. Shogen takes exception to Kokingo right away, insisting on playing a “real” game but asking for take backs every five seconds when Kokingo makes a winning move. Fed up with Shogen’s behaviour, Kokingo brands him a cheat and threatens to leave the game. Shogen is once again enraged and fight develops during which Kokingo is killed. Shogen threatens Saheiji into helping him dispose of the body by walling it up inside an adjacent room while telling his mother that Kokingo was so embarrassed over losing to him that he’s gone off  in a huff for additional study in Kyoto and Osaka. Shogen doesn’t even stop there, raping Kokingo’s mother when she starts asking questions after seeing her son’s ghost leading her to commit suicide after cursing his entire family and instructing Kokingo’s beloved cat to lap up her blood and imbibe her wrath to become a vengeful cat spirit. 

Shogen is all the worst excesses of the samurai class rolled into one, narcissistic, angry and entitled as he uses the exploitation of those below him to foster a sense of security in his authority. As in any good ghost tale, the vengeful spirits distort his sense of reality forcing him to destroy himself out the guilt he refuses to feel. His son, Shinnojo, meanwhile is positioned as a good, progressive samurai determined to marry the woman he loves even though she is only a maid and therefore of a lower social class while often transgressively denouncing his father’s bad behaviour. That matters not to the ghost seeing as the curse is to Shogen’s entire bloodline meaning Shinnojo must to die and most likely at the hands of his father caught in a delusion trying to fight the ghosts of his past crimes. 

Tatsuichiro and Yoriko are “innocent” too though as it turns out Yoriko does have a connection to the house and the crimes of the past. They are still, however, trapped within the embodiment of the feudal legacy that is the former samurai mansion. Tatsuichiro’s determination that they can simply “paint over” the bloodstain is in many ways the problem and one reaching a crescendo in post-war Japan as it struggles to deal with the trauma of the immediate past while freeing itself of the latent feudalism which in part caused it. Only by facing the ghost, unearthing the bodies buried in the walls and laying them to rest, can they ever hope to make a recovery both spiritually and medically. Tatsuichiro at least seems to have cured himself even if left with a lingering sense of unease while his apparently now healthy wife seems to have overcome her fear of cats in the relative safety of modern day Tokyo. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Mother’s Love (母情, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1950)

mothers-loveShimizu’s depression era work was not lacking in down on their luck single mothers forced into difficult positions as they fiercely fought for their children’s future, but 1950’s A Mother’s Love (母情, Bojo) takes an entirely different approach to the problem. Once again Shimizu displays his customary sympathy for all but this particular mother, Toshiko, does not immediately seem to be the self sacrificing embodiment of maternal virtues that the genre usually favours.

Tellingly, when we first meet Toshiko she’s asleep on a bus as her three children badger a friendly artist who’s entertaining them by drawing a picture of their pretty mother. The boys are quick correct themselves when talking about the woman they’re with – she’s their “aunt” not their mother, but the artist sees through the ruse. Toshiko is heading to visit her brother in the country in the hope that he will look after her children for awhile offering the explanation that she wants to get married again. Her brother is sympathetic to her problems, but has six children of his own already (and perhaps a seventh on the way) so taking in three extra mouths to feed is not really an option. Agreeing to look after the youngest girl, they suggest trying an elderly uncle but remind her that he has a rather conservative mindset and may ask all sorts of questions about Toshiko’s recent past which she might not want to answer.

Not to worry, the uncle seems to have mellowed with age though he can’t take in two growing boys either and suggests asking a friend of his who’s been trying for a baby for years but has been unable to have one. When that doesn’t work out Toshiko deposits her second son at the uncle’s and travels on with just her oldest boy, Fusao, but as time goes on Toshiko begins to rethink her decision to have her children fostered out and wonders if just being together might be worth more than a stable economic life founded on the pain of abandonment.

The protagonists of “hahamono” which praise the idea of the noble, self sacrificing mother are not universally saintly but the one thing they never do is consider leaving their children. In this regard Toshiko is not immediately sympathetic. Rejecting the name “mother” for “aunt” in the hope of hooking a prospective husband, Toshiko has already marked herself as falling outside of the idealised mother standards and her rather cool, snappy way of addressing the children does not go in her favour either. Her brother greets her warmly (even if he seems to suspect that she’s probably come because she wants something) and has no desire to drag up the past but points out that other people might not be so charitable given that all three children have different fathers and Toshiko has never revealed how she supported herself towards the end of the war and in its immediate aftermath. Nevertheless, Shimizu refuses to judge her. Her life has been a hard one and she herself was fostered out herself as a child. Toshiko’s decision may not be one everyone would agree with but that doesn’t mean it was an easy one for her to make, or that she feels nothing in giving up her children.

The biggest tragedy is that the kids will be separated. Apparently often left to fend for themselves at home whilst Toshiko works, the children are a mini band of three and it seems even more cruel that they will be deprived not only of a mother but of their siblings too. Though the youngest girl tries to run after her mother and brothers, and the second son cries so much that his brother goes back to give him one of his comic books to cheer him up, Fusao is even more upset and anxious as the last remaining child. Constantly wetting the bed which costs him his place at a few prospective new homes, Fusao is plagued by the idea that his mother is about to abandon him and finally pleads with her that he can take care of his siblings by himself if only they can all stay together.

Fusao’s pleas eventually soften his mother’s heart though she begins to think again after coming across a band of itinerant performers, one of whom is nursing an infant despite her poverty and the harshness of her life. The young woman seems devoted to her child and is determined to take care of it even though she has no husband to help her. The child’s grandmother urged her daughter to give the baby up to someone with more resources to raise it but the girl refused, no matter how hard it may turn out to be. Moved, and feeling even more guilty in witnessing the hardships another mother is bearing for her child, Toshiko’s resolve begins to weaken.

When Toshiko is taken ill at an inn and her friend from the city, Mitsuko, comes to visit her it is revealed that Toshiko’s plan is not another marriage but that the two women are in the process of opening a bar – hence why she needs to farm out her children. Mitsuko has also sent her daughter to a relative so that she can plow all her time and money into the enterprise though no one knows how long it will take until the place is successful enough to support the full families of both women. It may be, therefore, that Toshiko’s desire to run her own business is for the ultimate benefit of her children who will finally have a degree of economic security. On thinking again, she wonders if it isn’t selfish vanity and that she’s sacrificing her children to fulfil her own desires.

Shimizu takes a more conservative viewpoint than that found in his other work by encouraging Toshiko to reject the prospect of being her own boss to embrace the traditional values of her natural maternity. The old nurse Toshiko visits in the hope that she will take in Fusao (which she almost certainly would have done) remarks that a full belly isn’t everything and being together might be enough, but that doesn’t quite explain what the obviously desperate Toshiko is going to do to survive from here on in. One can only hope that she somehow finds a way to make the bar work (even if it takes a little longer) rather than be left with nothing all over again. Focusing less on the children than on the maternal conflict as Toshiko becomes torn by the traditional values as seen in her rural hometown and the less forgiving modernism of the city, Shimizu retains an understanding tone but also eschews the concessions to pragmatism which so often went hand in hand with his forward looking idealism, for a reassertion of conservative values which fly in the face of his usually compassionate acceptance of the very real difficulties faced by women in a conformist and male dominated society.


 

Mr. Shosuke Ohara (小原庄助さん, AKA Ohara Shosuke-san, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1949)

vlcsnap-2016-09-25-01h34m07s636Ohara Shousuke-san (小原庄助さん) is the name of a character from a popular folk song intended to teach children how not to live their lives. The Ohara Shosuke-san of Aizu Bandaisan has lost all his fortune but no one feels very sorry for him because it’s his own fault – he spent his days in idleness, drinking, sleeping in, and bathing in the morning. The central character of Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1937 film has earned this nickname for himself because he also enjoys a drink or too and doesn’t actually do very much else, but unlike the character in the song this a goodhearted man much loved by the community because he’s a soft touch and just can’t refuse when asked for a favour. An acknowledgement of the changing times, Shimizu’s Mr. Shousuke Ohara is a tribute to the soft hearted but also an argument for action over passivity.

If you turn up one day and ask for directions to the Sugimoto household, everyone will look at you with confusion but if you ask for Mr. Shousuke Ohara everyone will gladly walk you over and introduce you. Saheita Sugimoto (Denjiro Okochi) is the head of a once proud samurai household but his fortunes are far from those of his ancestors. Despite his pecuniary difficulties, Sugimoto is good hearted man who wants to help everyone that he can (out of a sense of altruism rather than duty or vanity). Consequently he is deeply in debt and nearing bankruptcy yet he can’t give up any of his three vices – drinking, gambling, and generosity.

The nature of the changing times is at the centre of this 1949 film. As Sugimoto is fond of telling people, his noble house used to stand for something but all of that historical influence is next to meaningless now. Though Western dress is not uncommon, the village is pretty much as it’s always been – children play in the fields and Sugimoto travels everywhere by donkey. Other than the tale of Sugimoto’s fall from grace, the central narrative concerns an election for a new village chief. Yoshida, a youngish man, wants Sugimoto’s support for his election campaign. His main campaign policy is modernisation – the introduction of electricity, modern transportation and communications, as well as greater cultural involvement starting with opening Western style ballroom dance classes for the children. Unfortunately his policies are not that firm and his motto seems to be “I’ll do that first!” to all aspects of his plan which is not very encouraging but still the desire is very much to move away from old fashioned village life towards a more sophisticated urbanism.

This of course also means an end to the inherited influence of idle nobleman such as Sugimoto. Though he’s a kind man who likes nothing other than helping other people, Sugimoto has been a passive steward, more consumed with his own idle pursuits than with making an active attempt at leading the village. This passivity has contributed to his downfall as he’s neglected the business of maintaining his own fortune. After taking out numerous loans which he only ever uses to help the villagers, Sugimoto has let the estate which ancestors founded, and which he was supposed to look after in the names of all that have gone before and all were to come after him, slip away. The ultimate failure and a disgrace to his ancestors, this loss of the ancestral home is an unforgivable betrayal yet there is something in Sugimoto which seems to regard it as right and proper that it should go.

Change is coming to the village, even if it isn’t coming with the speed that a young man like Yoshida may be hoping for. Change is also coming to Japan which is in the progress of rebuilding itself anew following long years of folly followed by confusion. There is no room for genial idleness anymore. “If you can work honestly with your hands you can make a living”, Sugimoto tells two would-be-burglars that he invites in for a drink as a apology for not having anything left for them to steal, but means the advice more for himself than anyone else. It’s time to say goodbye to Shousuke Ohara and the burden of inherited privilege and chart a new course as Seihata Sugimoto. Finishing on another of Shimizu’s much loved road shots, Sugimoto, like his nation, walks confidently along the road to an uncertain future yet he is not alone as he goes and may make something of himself yet.